I didn’t start this blog as some kind of therapy, but every time I start to write about something that brightens my day, it feels like I’m baring my soul! But, here goes – I like buses: pretty much any bus from the 50s and early 60s, but particularly big red London Routemasters. I’m eternally grateful to London Transport (yes, I know it’s TfL now, but that’s not what’s written on the side of the bus) for keeping them on a couple of routes around the centre of Town, meaning that a wander along the Strand or through the City can still involve the evocative sight of a bright red double decker with its unmistakable profile growling majestically along – it just looks right. And when my various travels give me the chance to ride on one – the combination of sensations from the smell of the moquette, the contrast between the bright red exterior and cream interior paint, the little details of interior construction, all combine to make a straightforward journey from Tower Hill to Trafalgar Square one of life’s little highlights.
In an attempt to understand this frankly troubling passion, I’ve asked myself just what it is about buses that evokes this reaction. For a start, it’s something that harks back to a happy pre-family car childhood, when visits to grandparents meant a ride on a green 309 Eastern National bus and the chance that the conductor would give me the last strip of unused ticket roll if it was getting near the end. Maybe there’s a bit of nurture in amongst the nature, too, as my present to mark the arrival of a new baby sister was a bus conductor’s outfit (cue a career involving peaked caps). Add to that the joy of arranging the shelves from an old fridge and cushions from the living room chairs for games of ‘buses’ with my Dad and assorted soft toys, and it’s no surprise that 1960s buses and warm childhood memories are firmly wedded in the subconscious.
It’s a design thing, too. So much of London Transport design from the 1930s and 1950s (bearing in mind that the 1940s mainly consisted of putting stuff back together after bombing raids) just oozes good design. As the spiritual birthplace of the double-decker, London’s buses have always set the standard. The Routemaster took all that experience, epitomised by its predecessor the RT (as driven by Cliff in Summer Holiday), and blended it with experience in light-weight aluminium construction gained building Halifax bombers during WW2. The result was rolled out at the Earl’s Court Commercial Vehicle Exhibition on 24 September 1954 (maybe that’s it – we share the same birthday). 2760 buses later, production ended in 1968, and the quality of design meant that, barring refurbishment and updates, they stayed in everyday use until 2005 – and 10 years later the veterans of the No 15 Route are just some of the many still in commercial or private hands around the world.
But I think the clinching factor for me is the place of the bus in the social history of mid 20th Century Britain. Look at any photo of town life from the era, and there will be a bus or two, or more, in the background. In an era before car ownership became all pervasive, public transport was how the vast majority of normal people made any journey too long for Shank’s pony and too short to for the train. After the demise of the tram and trolleybus in the 1950s, the bus is our living link with the era. It was how folk went to see those classic flicks at the pictures, how aspiring home-makers went shopping for the modernist touches for their new post-war homes, even how wild Teddy Boy youth headed out for the dance halls (check out the film version of Sidney Furie’s 1962 film ‘The Boys’, novelised by John Burke in a classic Pan paperback, for some classic bus-related delinquency). To ride a vintage double-decker is to be transported literally back to another era, needing only the aroma of wet mackintoshes and, on the top deck, cheap cigarettes for a multi-sensory experience. So, on your next trip to London – and for the price of a single fare on your Oyster card – swing aboard the platform of a No 15 at Trafalgar Square or Tower Hill, and step instantly back to the 1960s – just be careful not to step on my childhood on your way up the stairs.
Needless to say, the Routemaster has its own website, and there is a superb collection of images at the London Transport Museum photo site.